Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Educating This Generation’s Evaluators

Some of you may know that I am on an incredible learning journey called “Graduate School”. I am nearly a year into this experience and can honestly say that my own thoughts around theory and practice have been influenced this past year. Clearly, the work of Claremont Graduate University as well as Western Michigan and a few other schools are brining a focus and commitment to professional evaluation otherwise not found. They are creating masters and doctoral “prepared” professionals into the world to engage nearly anyone they can in evaluation. If you want to get a sense of how important I think that is, just skim through the titles of my previous postings over the years. I think there is room for more of these institutions around the globe as my own experience of being the ultimate commuter student to pursue my own PhD has taught me. You see, there wasn’t a school nearby with a strong evaluation focused program in which I could expand my own knowledge and expertise. There wasn’t the community of thinkers locally available. So, first with Claremont’s Certificate Program and later my application and acceptance to the Graduate Program – I found my community. However, I think the stars aligned and I was lucky. Claremont and just started the Certificate Program (I was in the first cohort) and if it wasn’t for the vision of the leadership of Claremont’s Psychology Department with Stewart Donaldson at the helm, I would be stuck, wishing.

As you can probably guess, I have an idea… Well, a few anyway.
1) Online programs have a bad reputation in the academic world. There is a viewpoint that they are not as rigorous as residence programs. This viewpoint needs to change. Online participation in residence programs is now possible – my experience is case in point. In fact, there are times that I believe I get a superior experience to the resident in the classroom, having access to a teaching assistant with whom I can discuss thoughts and ideas that occur to me during the class that I wouldn’t want to disrupt the class in their vocalization. Granted, my experience is a bit different than other online experiences – perhaps in the area of requirements. But, with a bit of effort, the technology is currently present to maintain those requirements – even when the student is thousands of miles away from the campus. I suggest that the schools that educate and train professional evaluators examine this idea more closely and experiment.

2) Workshops at conferences, institutes, and the like are good entrĂ©es to topics, techniques, and theories of evaluation – but that about covers it. The onus is on the “student” to seek out additional venues of learning, usually books or websites. AEA has done some fantastic things to offer more information to members in the form of AEA365, its Linkedin group, EVALTALK, and others. EVALTALK was my link with the evaluation community, a place to ask questions from time to time and Linkedin as assumed some of that role as well. AEA365 provides great tips and links to useful ideas – but there is still something missing, an organized, progressive training opportunity for evaluation professionals.

On a daily basis, I work with both amateur and professional evaluators. Frankly that differentiation is unfair. I work with folks along a spectrum of evaluation knowledge and skill. I engage academics that have poor evaluation knowledge and skill as well as academics that are highly knowledgeable in this arena. [At some point, I will write more about the differentiation between content experts and evaluation experts – something a good number of nonprofits and funders misunderstand.] I also engage individuals with bachelors and masters degrees in fields not traditionally associated with evaluation or research that are highly knowledgeable and yes there are those with little knowledge in this category as well. Sending all of these people to a workshop to learn aspects of evaluation is not going to go far in improving their abilities. They need more support than that.

My own work in this area is leading me to a coaching model for engaging and training those lower on the evaluation knowledge continuum. In such a model, technical assistance in the more traditional forms of workshops and one-on-one training occurs – but that the “instructor” or “coach” continues to have contact with the “students”, providing continual education as needed for the “student”. Like a player of a coached team, the “student” receives the training and then is allowed to “play” (conduct appropriate evaluation work at their level) with additional mentoring and advice from the coach. Occasionally, the “student” returns for training (again, envision a team practice) for additional skills/knowledge development. We are testing this in a few projects I’m associated with and if you happen to attend this year’s AEA conference in Anaheim (, you are most welcome to catch a presentation sharing our experiences with this in one organization and where our theory of capacity building has evolved.

However… This still leaves a large gap in the education of evaluators – specifically the group I would call semi-professionals. These are the people on the middle of the continuum that have perhaps a master’s degree or even a strong research focused bachelor’s degree. They often have been practicing evaluation for a shorter period of time and if they are lucky, work in an organization with a more experienced and/or better trained evaluator. But often, they are not – and they are looking for additional educational opportunities. They may sign up and attend workshops on topics, but as mentioned earlier, these are just teasers relative to the depth of focus found in a graduate level course on the topic. Oh – and the reason I can speak about this is this was me many years ago and as I mentioned, I eventually got lucky. But until I got lucky and was able to find a program that was a good fit and allowed me to stay in my profession – I did what most of these semi-professional evaluators do. I attended workshops, conferences, and read books, journal articles, and posed my questions on EVALTALK. And honestly, it wasn’t enough. Yet, with exception to a few opportunities, there really is not much out there for the advancement of people falling into this category. Some are early enough in their careers that they can make the move to a direct residence program. In my case, the residence program accommodated me. But, there need to be more opportunities like mine – otherwise, we are leaving the semi-professional evaluators to their own devices with little support.

Do you have ideas to how to build evaluation capacity and knowledge? Please share!

As always, I’m open to your comments, suggestions, and questions. Please feel free to post comments.

Best regards,

Charles Gasper

The Evaluation Evangelist